Upheaval on the Disk Storage Scene

The recent months have brought advances in capacity and reductions in costs for tiny drives. Meanwhile, the industry is coming to grips a new recording technology.

Sea changes are going on in the market for storage devices large and very, very small. The past couple of months have brought several big advances in capacity and reductions in costs for tiny drives. Meanwhile, the hard drive industry is coming to grips with the physical limits on longitudinal (along the surface) recording and preparing to usher in new and not necessarily thoroughly dependable perpendicular recording technology.

One of the biggest wave-makers in the storage arena in recent months has been Cornice. The company is based in Colorado—perennially a hotbed of storage innovation—with a management team made up of drive and memory pundits and has a tiny drive called the Cornice Storage Element that promises to shake up peoples assumptions about how much consumer electronics devices such as MP3 players and camcorders ought to cost. The Cornice Storage Element is a half-cubic-inch, 1.5-GB drive that can store about 30 CDs worth of music or about two hours of MPEG video. A number of consumer electronics companies have announced products based on the drive.

The real innovation within the Cornice Storage Element is a reduction in electrical components—31, according to a Cornice white paper, as opposed to upwards of 110 in competitive devices. "While flash costs 18 cents per megabyte and a mini-drive from a competitor costs 15 cents per megabyte, the Cornice SE costs four cents a megabyte," the white paper contends. Cornice intends to keep volume pricing of its drives at about $65 instead of the $200 or so for competitive drives. IBMs Microdrives are among the chief competing units.

The Cornice drives pricing has made it a hit with consumer electronics manufacturers, for whom even a small reduction in the cost of a device can make the difference between a hit and a failure. The Cornice SE is in Rios new MP3 players, the Samsung Gadget camcorder (which drew raves at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year), and the RCA Lyra Microjukebox. Cornice deserves recognition "for tackling the problems that face the cost-versus-capacity issues that are critical to the design of handheld devices," said Gerry Purdy, principal analyst at MobileTrax.

As consumer electronics devices and digital cameras proliferate in a gadget-hungry tech arena, their storage requirements are growing by leaps and bounds. Standard hard disks in desktop computers are big enough to easily host thousands of photos, for example, but affordable removable media hasnt kept pace. Meanwhile, the capacities of tiny fixed drives in gadgets have gotten surprisingly big and have resulted in some pricey items. The newest $499 Apple iPod, for example, has a tiny 30GB drive that can store up to 15,000 songs. At that price, though, the iPod is one little device you dont want to forget on the taxicab seat.

Colby Systems Corp. has also responded to the needs of consumer device manufacturers, in this case with a new $279, 2.4GB micro hard drive, which more than doubles the capacity of popular 1GB miniature drives from Hitachi and others. The data transfer rate is also purportedly higher for the Colby drive, but PC Magazine has not yet tested that claim. Giving a perfect example of the leapfrog game being played in the storage space, though, Hitachi has already announced a similar 4GB drive, due in the fourth quarter of this year. All these drives are primed for digital cameras, MP3 players and other gadgets.

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